On Judgment

With all this silly fuss over dancing competitions, I’ve found myself thinking ever more about the concept of judgment and why it should trigger such violent responses. I’ve also been considering the way these competitions (Strictly Come Dancing, American Idol, the X-Factor, Dancing with the Stars) are all similarly set up to be compelling and frustrating at the same time, and why that particular structure should inevitably lead to its eventual implosion. Now you might wonder, justifiably, why I would bother to analyze the clash between argumentative judges and stubborn public voters in a light entertainment programme, but I think it has an awful lot to say about our modern fear of judgment, our fraught relationship with authority, and the brutal manipulativeness of the media. Not the least being the way that all three have got out of hand and are heading on a collision course to disaster.

The issue, I think, resolves around the clash between judgment and justice. Now you might think the two go hand in hand, that judgment occurs so that justice can be done, and indeed you would be right, in an ideal world. But look at the differences: judgment (over there in the sharp suit with the briefcase) is carried out by an expert or an authority, a bloodless summing up according to the rules, and as such it can be thought too heartless, too cerebral. Justice (flowing gown, mystic tiara and set of scales) is the deep-rooted sense of restoring order and harmony to the world, a desire so profound in human beings that it is located in the same part of the brain as our responses to food. Justice is spiritual nourishment if you like, and something instinctual, instinctive, an emotional response rather than a purely intellectual one. When all goes well, judgment and justice are complimentary, mutually supportive, and they may work to temper each other; justice may step in and plead for compassion when judgment seems unreasonably severe, whilst judgment can bring the power of cool reason to hot-headed outrage at seeming injustice. Where justice respects knowledge, and judgment respects humanity, all is well.

The problem arises when judgment falls closer to its alternative meaning, which is: ‘a calamity held to be sent by God’. So we’re talking thunderbolts here, plagues and boils, the wrath of God unleashed for hidden crimes of being rather than doing. Everyone gets these two versions of judgment mixed up because we all have a part of the brain known as the superego, or the internalized voice of authority. Now no matter how kind and gentle parents are, there are always going to be times when reprimands fall on children with the full force of divine intervention. Children suffer from being too young to know the rules, and so inevitably they come as a nasty shock. The voice of the superego inside our heads is the amalgamated voice of a thousand ticking-offs. It keeps us on the straight and narrow, reprimanding us for slacking at work, thinking unpleasant thoughts about other people and generally running up a series of unfortunate errors that could easily have been avoided. But there’s always something excessively harsh and unreasonable about the superego – it’s all whip and no carrot. Divine judgment was always mitigated by mercy, by benevolence, but there’s no compassion inside that part of our heads. The superego is the voice of moral outrage, of the whistle-blower and the tattle-tale, the first to kick you when you’re down and to insist you deserve your misfortune. But there’s also something deeply compelling about the calamitous voice of the superego; it’s the sensationalized, finger-pointing form of judgment. Ever since the advent of Simon Cowell on our television screens, the voice of the superego has been regularly gracing (although that’s not the word) the judging panel on all competitions. Just pause and think for a moment about his shock tactic rudeness and the dual effect it has on the viewer who both recoils in horror and ruefully acknowledges a kernel of truth. Television game shows now require that kind of voice amongst the judges because it’s compellingly gruesome to see people suffering those kind of just-not-good-enough humiliations in public. And in any case it corresponds to something that was always already inside our head – we just didn’t believe it was okay to say it out loud.

So, the kind of judgment based on divine fury makes for compulsive television viewing, but it removes the graciousness of judgment, its illuminating, enriching qualities. There is no reason to fear judgment, not even when it has a critique to deliver, as the power of reason, the beauty of knowledge, are essential, glorious parts of humanity, the parts that rise us up above the animals and give us access to science, to art, to wisdom and learning. By contrast, judgment that thinks it’s God is corrupt and bloated, overinflated, full of itself. It’s also contagious. The more the spirit of unreason inhabits judgment, the more the spirit of justice goes into overdrive, ready to right the wrongs. Emotional, crusading justice pushed beyond its own gentle boundaries starts to take on the contours of the mob. Like the time a few years back in the UK when a tabloid newspaper published the names and addresses of known pedophiles. Feeling that such people had not been punished enough, vigilante mobs took to the streets, hunting down not just those who appeared in the paper, but a few unfortunate pediatricians as well in their dyslexic fury.

When we translate unreasonable judgment and crusading justice onto a television competition, the result is Socrates’ fable of the unjust city. For Socrates the unjust city is like a ship in the ocean, crewed by a powerful but drunken captain (the people), a group of untrustworthy advisors who try to manipulate the captain into giving them power over the ship’s course (politicians), and a navigator (the philosopher) who is the only one who knows how to get the ship to port. Socrates argues that the only way the ship will reach its destination – order, or what he would call ‘the good’ – is if the navigator takes charge and guides by the information on his maps rather than by spin or desire. If we transfer the inmates of that ship to the small screen, we can equate the group of untrustworthy advisors to the judging panel and the drunken, powerful captain to the people at home, ready to do battle with their remote controls and mobile phones. But where is the philosopher? The closest we come is the game show host, who does indeed try to embody the voice of serenity, but only as referee between judges and public, not as an individual with any grasp on the programme’s ultimate direction. Socrates’ parable shows what is vitally missing from the so-called judgment of such television shows and that’s the figure of the philosopher. There is no one whose role is to guide by the information on the maps – no one, in other words, with access to a little objective truth.

And here we hit an obstacle that has been growing in society for probably fifty years or so, which is that people don’t feel too good about ‘truth’ as a concept any more, mostly because of its associations with the kind of authoritarian power that got us all into two world wars. Can you imagine anyone agreeing to conscription any more? In a way, this is a good thing, but it comes at the cost of deep suspicion regarding official sources of truth and authority. The internet is a prime example of the democratization of information now reaching a zenith. And this is fine, except that the extremely important borderline between judgment and opinion gets blurred. Everyone has an opinion, that’s indisputable, but not everyone has the same access to expertise. This doesn’t make opinions less valuable, but it can make them difficult to evaluate unless the speaker is willing to confess honestly to his or her level of educated insight. Opinion, in other words, is getting a bit too big for its boots, because people refuse to admit that their own judgment has insufficient basis in knowledge or experience. That’s a bad thing to say these days – opinion is becoming a sacred concept. Partly because we turn now only to the law and to medicine for valued adjudications, and both of them will argue ferociously for judgments that are partisan best guesses; and partly because of the mass media. The media loves nothing more than to appeal to people’s sense of justice, not because it cherishes it as one of the most honorable qualities of humanity, but because the powerful emotions it arouses make people spend money – on buying newspapers or casting phone votes. And for that reason, if absolutely none other, I would refuse to play the games the media holds out for me and respond to the emotional manipulation that’s thrust before my face. Whatever I think of a dancer on a televised contest, it’s only my uneducated opinion and whilst it’s fun to have and valuable to me, it’s not worth starting a fight over.

Given that we’re in a bit of a mess these days over authority and judgment, truth and opinion, I think it’s about time we stopped focusing these television programmes on the pointless cannon fodder of (would-be) celebrities and put something worth arguing about in the frame. I’d like to see a whole run of television shows called Strictly Come Big Business, and Lawyer Idol in which hedge fund managers and legal eagles have to justify their actions and decisions. Even better would be Dancing with the Media, in which newspaper editors produce the information behind their ‘informed judgments’. If we’re going to turn judgment and justice into something ugly, we might as well do it at the heart of our culture’s opinionated forms of misrepresentation.


6 thoughts on “On Judgment

  1. Victoria–Joshua Henkin here, author of MATRIMONY, a copy of which you won in Gentle Reader’s giveaway a while back. I couldn’t find contact info for you, so I’m getting in touch via your comments section. I’m a reader and admirer of your blog and I was wondering whether you might be interested in doing a giveaway of MATRIMONY over the holiday season. I look forward to hearing from you.



  2. Very interesting perspective on the reality TV thing Litlove! I haven’t quite thought of it that way. I always think of Dancing with the Stars and American Idol as being nothing more than popularity contests. It’s like a throw back to all our adolescent anxieties and high school hurtfulness. Everyone is fighting to be the cool kid but instead of your peers being the ones who make that decision it is the TV viewers and the judges (though the Dancing with the Stars Judges are usually nice), all the ones who never got to be the cool kid and so like to make the ones angling for that position feel as bad as possible.

  3. I love the ideas in your last paragraph — wouldn’t those be wonderfully satisfying shows? I see the problem of overvaluing opinion and undervaluing authority and knowledge — actually I grapple with it in the classroom sometimes because I want students to develop confidence in their own judgments and opinions, but I also don’t want to imply that their opinion is the only thing that matters and that there aren’t experts out there well worth deferring to. It can be a balancing act sometimes.

  4. Stefanie – well you are quite right that these things are fundamentally popularity contests. Over here, though, it’s often the underdogs and the eccentrics that gain huge public support. So perhaps it’s more the case that the judges like the swots and then the public vote for the boys in the back row. Ah, now I’m sure there’s a parable in that! 🙂 Dorothy – if only I were in charge of tv scheduling! I know what you mean about that clash between opinion and expertise. I guess I used to think my job was to teach students how to have an opinion that was based on evidence and analysis rather than emotions and gut reactions. Each informs the other, but only one can truly carry an argument. I don’t know how far I got with it, though!

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